Yesterday, London Live TV’s Headline London lunchtime news programme covered the Eid celebrations taking place in the capital, and asked whether the UK government should make Eid (and the Hindu festival of Diwali) nationwide public holidays.
Semi-Partisan Sam was pleased to be invited to debate the issue with poet Mohamed “Mo Rhymes” Mohamed and political activist Peymana Assad on the Headline London panel. The debate was courteous and good-natured, which cannot often be said of debates on religion – but I believe my argument, founded on national unity, church/state separation and the rights of the individual won the day.
London Live’s website only shows the first part of the panel discussion, but the full segment is embedded here, via Semi-Partisan Sam’s YouTube channel:
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This was in no way out of animosity to Britain’s Muslim or Hindu communities; Semi-Partisan Sam acknowledges and appreciates the good that all of Britain’s religions and denominations (as well of people of no faith) contribute to the rich tapestry of our country.
But carving out a new exception, or concession, to minority religions in Britain would be a backward step just as small signs of progress are being made in rolling back the pervasive and anachronistic influence of our own established national church.
Furthermore, if we are to add a new public holiday to our calendar, Semi-Partisan Sam strongly believes that it should be one that unites, rather than divides, the whole of our United Kingdom. At a time when Britain is seemingly fracturing into a loose, uncomfortable coalition of competing interest groups and distinct sub-communities, and when many people struggle even to articulate any sense of British values, any new public holiday should celebrate the history and achievements of our entire nation – the one to which we all belong, Christian, Muslim, Hindu or otherwise – rather than flatter or appease any one particular group marked out for sponsorship by the government.
I will be on London Live TV’s Headline London show today, from 1230-1330 UK Time, participating in a panel discussion in which we will debate this topic.
You can watch on Sky 117, Virgin 159 or Freeview 8 from 1230 onwards.
The wall of separation between church and state is under threat once again.
Not officially, of course. We in Britain have no written constitution, no final recourse to turn to in the event of gross government or judicial overreach, or the flagrant violation of our natural rights. But nonetheless, just as progress is being made elsewhere in placing religion in mutually beneficial quarantine from government, the parties of God (a term coined by the late Christopher Hitchens) are launching a counter-attack. And this time the attack comes not from the aggrieved Christian plurality, but the Muslim and Hindu minorities.
MPs are set to debate an e-petition aiming to make Eid and Diwali public holidays in the UK.
The e-petition is being championed in Parliament by Conservative MP Bob Blackman, after being signed by more than 120,000 people.
It is only fair that Muslims and Hindus have “the most important days in their faiths recognised in law”, the petition argues.
It should be noted that the government has already rejected the petition. But the fact that a Member of Parliament (and a conservative one at that) is willing to publicly go against the grain and argue for greater, not less government enforced religion in the lives of the people is worrying, and a sign that must be watched carefully.
The reasons for not widening the UK’s current public holidays are many, the first being the fact that shoehorning in another two religious public holidays which are set according to religious timetables rather than the economic rhythm and needs of the nation will only further exacerbate the current skewed system. At present, the UK’s bank holidays are concentrated very unequally in the early part of the year: a brace over the Easter weekend, a volley in May, a last hurrah in August and then the long, slow autumnal death march through the rest of the year until the people are saved by the Christmas holidays. This does little to take into account the needs of businesses (who lose their labour for a day), or for people who might wish the days to be spaced out more evenly.
Secondly, unlike many other countries, none of Britain’s public holidays are used for the beneficial purpose of celebrating our entire nation, our shared culture (as opposed to niche interests – a category under which Christianity increasingly falls) or our collective accomplishments as a British people. Unlike the United States, we have no equivalent to Independence Day, when we can all celebrate being British and indulge in an important exercise in positive patriotism. Unlike France, we have no Bastille Day, celebrating pivotal moments in our national history.
Aside from the fact that recognising pivotal days in our nation’s history helps to nurture the ties that bind us all together, it can be a money-maker too – the American economy may lose a day of labour every year on July 4 and Thanksgiving, but how much is injected into their economy through family gatherings, travel and public celebrations? And how great are the non-monetary benefits of fostering a shared sense of collective identity – one which Britain sometimes sorely lacks?
Thirdly, expanding the public holiday schedule to include more religious days would ignore the simultaneous (and popular) campaign underway to make St. George’s Day a national holiday. The saints days for the home nations are not recognised as UK-wide public holidays, which only fosters internal resentment and fuels the nationalist separatist causes which threaten the balkanisation of Britain.
And finally, written constitution or none, Britain urgently needs to raise a wall of separation between religion and our government, a cause that would be significantly set back by bestowing official government sponsorship on even more faiths. That is not to denigrate the great good that many religious congregations, parishes, charities and organisations do every day. But this social good cannot be used as a bargaining chip to blackmail the rest of the country (an increasingly secular one, for good or ill) into following the same lifestyle practices, moral codes or days of observance as the faithful.
Taken to its logical conclusion, ceteris parabus, this would mean the disestablishment of the Easter and Christmas public holidays. But this would not be a good idea. The Christian holidays, by virtue of having been part of our national fabric for so long, now occupy a place in our culture which transcends their religious origin. Many millions of people celebrate Christmas and Easter who have never set foot in a church, and could not name even the most fundamental tenets of the Christian faith. Furthermore, businesses and organisations around the world – especially in Britain’s main trading partners in North America and Europe – also observe these days as public holidays, making it unwise for Britain to deliberately put itself out of sync. Thus, because the Christian holidays are so embedded in our national life, and are an important reminder to our nation’s history and Christian heritage, there should (and will likely never) be no move to end these holidays.
(This is in no way to suggest that religious festivals and holidays cannot or should not be observed in other ways. The annual Diwali celebration in Leicester, for example, is rightly acclaimed as one of the finest in the world – though such celebrations should at all times be privately funded through sponsorship, and never from public money).
Race, culture and religion often make a volatile, contentious mixture. By granting special rights and favours to some, it can only lead to resentment among the unfavoured, and embolden the beneficiaries to ask for yet further recognition in the future. We already live in an age of religious persecution complexes and exaggerated victimhood – from the mild culture war still fought by the socially conservative Christian rearguard in Britain to the disillusioned British youths jetting off to fight for their so-called faith in Syria – and the very last thing we should be doing is anything that fans the fames of discord at home.
The UK’s Hindus and Muslims (and Christians, and everyone else) are all equally British under the law, and have an equal, important stake in our society, to the extent that they are willing to be British first and foremost. Only recently in the Birmingham schools scandal we have seen the damage that can be done to education and to young minds when religion is placed on a pedestal and sycophantic multiculturalist apologists are too petrified of causing offence to stand up for British values against religious extremism.
Rather than debating the admission of two more exclusionary, religion-oriented public holidays to the British calendar, Parliament should be debating a root and branch review of all our existing holidays as part of a broader effort to make our days off count for something more than a chance for a long weekend and an excuse to jet off out of the country.
What if together we celebrated the Acts of Union which created Great Britain? Or Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in the Napoleonic wars? Victory in Europe day? Or any one of many other days that could plausibly be used to draw us together as people of a United Kingdom rather than a fractured coalition of different faiths, interests, grudges and resentments?
For the sake of our fraying national unity, admitting more faiths into the elite club of state sponsorship and approval must be rejected as the misconceived idea that it is.
Well, apparently the concept is sufficiently fuzzy in the minds of some people that we all now need to take time to argue amongst ourselves and reach a common consensus while one of the biggest and most worrying educational scandals in recent years plays out unobserved.
In response to the ongoing scandal of Birmingham schools being compromised by activist governors to deliver covert Islamic religious teaching, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, made the slightly awkward if well-meant assertion that in future, all primary and secondary schools will be required to “promote British values”.
Michael Gove, the education secretary, has seized on a finding byOfsted that a “culture of fear and intimidation” existed in someBirmingham schools by announcing that the government will require all 20,000 primary and secondary schools to “promote British values”.
These values will include the primacy of British civil and criminal law, religious tolerance and opposition to gender segregation. Gove also suggested girls wearing the burqa would struggle to find their voice and must not feel silenced in the classroom.
In what is being described by ministers as a decisive shift away from moral relativism in the classroom, the education secretary took action after a landmark series of reports by the schools inspectorate into 21 Birmingham secular schools found an atmosphere of intimidation, a narrow, faith-based ideology, manipulation of staff appointments and inappropriate use of school funds.
Unfortunately, the predominant response thus far has not been one of outrage that such a thing could happen to compromise children’s education in the UK’s second city; instead, we have seen race to come up with the funniest self-deprecating anti-British putdown as expressed by the #BritishValues hashtag now trending on Twitter.
When presented with the opportunity to express outrage that local school curricula could be so easily hijacked by fundamentalist members of any faith and ‘turned’ to start promoting beliefs very far from the British values of democracy, equality, non-discrimination and obedience to the law, a majority seem more interested in having an introspective discussion about what modern British values really are (at best), or suggesting through Twitter witticisms that any concern is tantamount to xenophobic intolerance (more common).
The Huffington Post has collated a selection of what it considers to be “the best” responses, which take an almost uniformly dim view of British culture and history:
(It should be acknowledged that there have also been some very sensible and thoughtful contributions from others, such as the pianist Stephen Hough).
The hashtag activist comedians and earnest scolds of Twitter currently attempting to look cool by running Britain down on social media are actually revealing a few ingrained British traits of their own – excessive self deprecation and an almost craven desire not to offend or appear controversial – which easily become insidious and harmful when taken to extremes.
There is a gnawing anxiety behind some of the mocking #BritishValues tweets. “Isn’t patriotism so old fashioned?”, they scream. “Let’s list all the bad things that Britain has done so that no-one thinks we’re being boastful”. It may come across as cool, trendy liberalism but look closer and you see that some of it is actually rooted in fear.
Somewhere along the way the idea of expressing pride in Britain, and in British exceptionalism, became interchangeable in the minds of many people with that altogether darker and more insidious disease of racism. To express the former is, in the eyes of many, to come uncomfortably close to embracing the latter. And as a result, people instinctively turn away from patriotism, and instinctively oppose suggestions such as teaching British values at school, mistaking it for something else (and, incidentally, leaving a vacuum that the far right is only too happy to exploit).
And yet there is a serious issue at stake here, with the integrity of children’s education in question. Even the Guardian’s John Harris felt the need to weigh in to the ongoing argument about the fundamentalist Muslim influence in Birmingham schools, reminding his readers that state-subsidised religious indoctrination or interference with the curriculum is wrong whatever the source, and that this is no time for those on the left to bury their heads in the sand:
At the risk of reopening old wounds on the liberal left, for all the noise from those on the right of culture and politics, it is no good crying “witch hunt” and averting your eyes from this stuff. It should have no place in any state school, and most of it is an offence to any halfway liberal principles.
But Harris still felt the need to couch his tortured article in the wider context of a state education system which is failing and falling into disarray under the hated Tory government – the harsh unexpectedness of his gentle reminder that it’s not okay to look the other way and pretend to ignore the fundamentalist corrupting of education for fear of seeming racist or intolerant having to be soothed with a good old swipe at the real enemy, those on the political right.
Efforts to stamp out casual and institutional racism in Britain, while incomplete, have come a long way, even since the 1980s and 1990s. A large part of eradicating the scourge of casual racism has been (quite rightly) to mock it, deride racist thoughts and speech as backward and out of place, and doing everything possible to make racism distinctly uncool. The campaign to eradicate racism from football is a prime example of how successful Britain has been, especially when compared with continental and eastern Europe.
But while there is unquestionably still much work to be done, we must also begin to ask ourselves if one of the side effects has been a growing inability for people to express deeply felt but harmless national pride and patriotism in any but the safest, media-approved settings (such as the 2012 London Olympic Games).
If our generation’s instinctive response when they see criticism levelled at a person or group within a religious or ethnic minority is not to check the veracity and demand action if it is found to be true, but either to flinch and avert their eyes out of shock and unwillingness to believe or to become so embarrassed that their only coping mechanism is to resort to self-deprecating humour on social media, perhaps this is the price that our country has to pay in order to purge itself of the ingrained, widespread, casual racism that was common and socially acceptable for so long. Perhaps.
But being this way makes it much harder for us to deal with the problems facing Britain today, where the pernicious influence of fundamentalists (of all religions) on the young and the lack of assimilation of some cultures into wider British society are real issues that are being only half-heartedly tackled because of the paralysing fear of saying the ‘wrong thing’ or giving the wrong impression.
When asked why it was that Americans are so much more openly patriotic than Brits, the late Christopher Hitchens attributed it to the fact that overt displays of patriotism and love of country in the United States are borne out of the fact that as a nation of immigrants, Americans have no real shared history going back more than a couple of centuries. Therefore, simple acts such as reciting the pledge of allegiance every morning in schools and singing the national anthem before sporting events have, over time, helped to forge that unity within diversity.
But what has always been true of America is now increasingly becoming true of Britain. Immigration into Britain may bring profound economic and cultural benefits, but with each successive year of high net immigration and a lack of assimilation in some quarters, that degree of shared common history is diluted a bit more. And that’s absolutely fine, if other measures are in place to balance it out – like reciting a pledge, offering comprehensive British history as a mandatory subject at schools, or, shock horror, teaching children “British values”.
At the moment, though, these countermeasures are lacking. It should come as little surprise then that certain groups within society do not feel as much desire or pressure to integrate as they rightly should, and that when the door is left wide open in places like Birmingham to influence schools to teach children according to certain subcultural norms, some people will seize the opportunity with both hands.
Unfortunately, in the age of hashtag #Britain, not only does it surprise us when this happens, the thought of condemning or intervening in these events embarrasses us so acutely that we are barely able to have a national conversation without descending to xenophobic conspiracy theorising on one side or accusations of scaremongering on the other, topped off with a sprinkling of nervously self-deprecating Twitter jokes.
As John Harris noted in his article, by this point “inflammatory language and alarmism” have now done their work and made it harder to get to the bottom of what has really been going on in Birmingham’s schools. But there is an equally powerful countervailing force working in the other direction, suggesting that any concern is an unwarranted attack on a minority and misrepresenting any calls for the assertion and teaching of British values as xenophobic, Islamophobic and a direct attack on the principle of multiculturalism. It is not.
If we carry on in this way, we will never succeed in building and maintaining the unified, diverse and tolerant Britain that we all say we want.
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One of the aspects of British life that this blog finds hardest to tolerate and justify – aside from our lack of a written constitution, the complete absence of checks on Parliamentary power, our deference to government authority and the eternally unrealistic expectations heaped upon the England football team – is the fact that in the year 2014, our supposedly liberal democracy maintains the absurdity that is an established church (and de facto national religion).
The notion that Britain is a Christian nation has been a laughable, if ubiquitous proposition for many years now. To arrive at the conclusion that the UK is a Christian land, one has to redefine Christianity not as a religion, a set of beliefs, teachings or practices, but rather as some woolly abstract incorporating cherry-picked elements of history, patriotism, nationalism, whiteness, tradition, middle class anxiety and fear of change. The rather more trustworthy indicators such as weekly church attendance, changing census data and the public’s knowledge of basic Christian tenets point stubbornly and persistently in the opposite direction.
David Cameron, always more comfortable on the woollier side of a debate, naturally favoured the abstract markers of Britain as a “Christian” nation when he made his recent intervention, a rare instance of a senior politician addressing matters of faith which also conveniently eclipsed the ongoing media coverage of his incompetent handling of the Maria Miller expenses scandal.
First comes Cameron’s woolliness:
In an article in the Church Times ahead of Easter Sunday, Mr Cameron acknowledged that he is a “bit vague” on the “more difficult parts of faith” but said he has “deep respect” for the national role of the Church.
He said: “I am a member of the Church of England, and, I suspect, a rather classic one: not that regular in attendance, and a bit vague on some of the more difficult parts of the faith.
And then the pivot toward the bold assertion that despite the fact that Cameron is a religious zealot by today’s standards, “vague faith” such as this on the part of a dwindling segment of the population can be extrapolated to mean broad national consent for the primacy of one religion and denomination over all others:
He said: “I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.
But the emphasis really is on the word ‘dwindling’. The Rt Rev Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, inadvertently gives the game away when he seeks to explain what he claims are “heartening” church attendance figures:
These figures are a welcome reminder of the work and service undertaken by the Church of England annually – 1,000 couples married, 2,600 baptisms celebrated and over 3,000 funerals conducted every week of the year.
The fact that there were 400 more departures than additions to the ranks of the faithful in his diocese may have failed to set off alarm bells in the head of the Bishop of Norwich, but for the more numerate reader it does illustrate rather starkly the problem faced by the wider church.
Once it has been explained that 2,600 minus 3,000 equals a net loss of 400, the Rt Rev Graham James (and the Church of England as a whole) must concede the fact that a higher number of Christian funerals than baptisms represents a real and existential threat, or else they are essentially admitting that the sacraments of the church are no real way to measure the faith of the people, and that they therefore no longer matter. An admission of the latter seems unlikely.
The response of many – both to the decline in church attendance and in attempts to loosen the Church of England’s disproportionate grip on the levers of power – has been to rail against the damage of that destructive group known as the “militant atheists”, those shadowy PC paramilitaries who fight the War On Christmas and dare to suggest that claiming religious objection does not exempt a person from their contract of employment or license to do business. The Daily Mail leads the charge from this side:
The truth is that there is a new breed of militant atheists who are capable of being as unreasoning as the most bone-headed creationist. Their intolerance is a strange mirror reflection of the bigotry of religious extremists.
‘Intolerance’ here is given the broad definition of the perpetual victim, an insult hurled by those who suddenly find themselves losing their ability to impose their values and lifestyle choices on everyone else.
According to this school of thought, it is bone-headedly ignorant to see anything wrong in the fact that our Head of State has a constitutional duty to defend one faith above all others, or that twenty-six members of that one faith alone are entitled to sit in the upper house of the British Parliament and participate in our lawmaking.
Neither do the traditionalist defenders agree on when, if at all, Britain might no longer be considered a Christian country. Would it be when more people regularly attend another faith or denomination’s services? If so, that ship has already sailed and Britain should once again be pledging fealty to Rome and the Holy See. Or perhaps the moment of severance can be declared when a majority of people no longer agree with Church teaching on matters such as gay marriage or equality for women? But again, that moment has been passed. More likely, their answer would be “never”, simply because they will it to be so.
None of this means that Christianity has lost its place as the predominant religion in Britain – indeed, this is one thing clearly supported by the 2011 census data. It is certainly true that among people expressing a religious affiliation, the vast majority identify as Christians. But there is a huge gulf between acknowledging this fact and deciding that British laws and the British system of government itself should continue to be organised around and influenced by the teachings of a religion that most people only identify with on a nominal, cultural basis.
And it is on this this basis that the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, joined the debate with a proposal to disestablish the Church of England, in order to prevent any more unnecessary harm coming either to that church or to the rest of us.
Nick Clegg has said the church and state should be separated, a view he has expressed before but one that is likely to gain fresh currency after David Cameron described Britain as a Christian country.
Clegg, an atheist, said he would like to see the disestablishment of the Church of England, which would lead to the Queen’s removal as the head of the church.
“In the long run it would be better for the church and better for people of faith, and better for Anglicans, if the church and the state were over time to stand on their own two separate feet,” the deputy prime minister said on his LBC radio phone-in show. He said he did not think this would happen overnight.
Heads will surely explode at The Daily Mail, and the likes of Cristina Odone will stay up late into the night to pen angry rebuttals, but in fact here is a very sensible proposal that would help to keep the church out of some of the more hot-button political and social debates affecting the country as a whole, while going a few steps toward establishing a more sane, comprehensible constitution for the United Kingdom.
Indeed, many of the reasons given by apologists for why the UK is a Christian country are symptoms of an established church, not justifications for continuing to tolerate one – artefacts such as the Queen’s role as the head of the church, or the presence of the Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords, for example. But this is akin to claiming that an Egyptian mummy is a living, breathing human being – sure, the body parts are in the right place (just as the constitutional elements are in place for a British theocracy) but the heart does not beat, the blood does not flow and the brain does not think like a living person.
Nick Clegg goes on to claim that the Church of England would “thrive” if disestablishment were to occur, and this may well be the case. At present, the Church has to walk a tightrope with doctrine on one side and popular opinion on the other, making it appear weak and indecisive, and pleasing to no one. Unshackled from the state, however, the church could continue to discriminate against gays and women (or more hopefully recognise their equality) without dragging the rest of the country into the debate.
Mr Cameron said: “I think our arrangements work well in this country. We are a Christian country, we have an established church,” adding that disestablishment was “a long term Liberal idea but it is not a Conservative one.”
This is conservatism of the bad kind, the reflexive hanging on to tradition not because the alternative is untried and the status quo works well, but simply out of a reluctance to rock the boat, upset the party base or start a real, informed debate. Cameron believes that the current constitutional arrangement “works well”, but take this with a pinch of salt – he also believes that parliamentary oversight of the security services works very well indeed, though it transpired that they were undertaking far more extensive and intrusive surveillance than the public had ever been aware of or given their consent.
Religious believers who oppose such a move should look to the US, where faith has flourished alongside the country’s secular constitution. Indeed, in an interview with the New Statesman in 2008, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, (who went on to famously guest-edit the magazine) suggested that the church might benefit from such a move: “I can see that it’s by no means the end of the world if the establishment disappears. The strength of it is that the last vestiges of state sanction disappeared, so when you took a vote at the Welsh synod, it didn’t have to be nodded through by parliament afterwards. There is a certain integrity to that.”
What Rowan Williams delicately calls a “certain integrity” is actually just plain old democracy, properly executed, with each citizen having a voice and no powerful interests able to sway policy based on their own narrow interests. Both church and state can make decisions in their own interests without running to each other for contentious debate or rubber-stamp approval.
The British people, usually so quick to voice their distaste for money in politics and big donations from wealthy individuals, corporations or trades union, should ponder this simple fact: of all the business moguls, special interest groups and union barons jostling to influence British government policy in their favour, only one organisation is powerful enough to boast twenty-six loyal, paid representatives ready to do its bidding in the upper house of the British Parliament. Britain’s 100 biggest employers, ten largest unions and her wealthiest people combined do not have the lobbying and legislative clout of the Church of England, an organisation that commands a weekly attendance of just 1.8% of the UK’s population.
To say all of these things does not imply a hostility of any kind to religion and faith-based organisations, despite the misleading accusations of the traditionalists; regular readers will know that this blogger is a practicing (if somewhat Cameron-vague) Catholic. Indeed, disestablishment of the Church of England, combined with a loosening of the government’s hand on all matters of faith, can only benefit religious organisations, schools, charities and initiatives through the plurality that would immediately be created.
But even if disestablishment would cause difficulty or a degree of harm to the church, that alone is not a sufficient reason to preserve the status quo. It is not the business of government to pick winners and losers, to favour some more than others, and institutions (corporate or otherwise) who rely on state aid of any kind tend to fail regardless in the longer term.
Christianity – and the Church of England – have formed a huge part of who we are as a country, influencing our laws, culture, art and traditions. We should be very grateful for this – just ask anyone who suffers or whose life prospects are narrowed or extinguished under a modern day Muslim theocracy. But we should not be content merely to be better than Iran or Saudi Arabia – the time has come to do away with an established state church entirely.
In the year 2014, it is time to finally remove the theological shackles from the British constitution, and to take the state church off life support so it may live and breathe unaided. Committed Christians and Church of England members should have the confidence in their faith and institutions to accept, if not actively welcome, this change.